The Big Change

With the advent of Islam, Arab seafaring changed. Historian George Fadlo Hourani breaks down the major effects of Islam on seafaring clearly and effectively as follows:

  1. The Arabs now stood on the shores of the Mediterranean. Although this move gave them access to the wealth and culture of Egypt and Syria, the total economic consequences were not wholly good. The Roman Empire had united the entire basin of the Mediterranean, so that commerce ran freely across its waters. In Mahomet et Charlemagne, French scholar Pirenne showed how this unity was essentially preserved through all the civil wars and invasions of the later Empire, interrupted for a time only by the Vandal occupation of North Africa. The Persians, by their break-through in the early seventh century, would have ended it, had they not been quickly driven back. It was the Arabs who ended it. Pirenne asked why the Arabs were not absorbed by the empire they conquered, as the Germans had been, and he found the answer in their religion. Christianity had reinforced the unity of the Mediterranean world; after the seventh century, two rival faiths, supported by the organization of empires, stood facing each other across the narrow waters. Instead of a highway, the Mediterranean became a frontier, a sea of war a change that ruined Alexandria. One boon seems to have been brought by the Arabs to the Mediterranean: the lateen sail.

  2. The Arabs occupied all the coasts of the Persian Gulf. They were able to take advantage of this gain because at the same time, they reunited their empire in the lands of Western Asia and Egypt. This economic area, first united politically by the ancient Persians, had been split in two by the successors of Alexander. We have seen the efforts of the western states to trade directly with the East via Egypt and the Red Sea. But the route of Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf had a direct advantage that could not be forgotten. Successive empires had tried to wipe out the unnatural frontier between Syria and Mesopotamia by overwhelming each other Ptolemies and Seleucids, Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Sassanids. Every attempt had failed. At last the Arabs, bursting in from the south, restored the unity of the old Persian Empire. This provided some compensation for the new Mediterranean barrier. The Persian Gulf and the Red Sea were no longer rival routes to Rome or Constantinople, but they were coordinate routes to the nearer lands of the Caliphate. While the Muslim empire remained one, these two routes were used side by side; the extent of their use depended mainly on the size and prosperity of the two markets of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The commerce between the Persian Gulf and India and China flourished greatly under the Abbasids, so long as Baghdad was the metropolis of the Middle East. There was also traffic between the Gulf and East Africa, while the ancient routes from the Red Sea were revived.

  3. The third change brought about by the Islamic expansion was of a more imponderable kind. It seems that men are always excited by new prospects caused by their own successful action, so that they display unusual enthusiasm in exploring and exploiting their possibilities. In this respect the medieval Arabs can be compared with the ancient Athenians after the repulse of the Persians, or the nations of Western Europe since the Renaissance. For several centuries, the Arabs showed an unusual energy in all fields of life. This energy extended to warfare, travel, and commerce, as well as to literature of travel, geography, and history.

Another effect that Islam had on the nature of Arab exploration and travel was the Hajj. The Hajj or holy pilgrimage to Mecca, added to geographical knowledge by providing contact among the Muslims of various countries visiting Mecca every year. The Hajj provided a means for religious unity, and it forged the trading relationships among Muslim countries. It led to the exchange of news among people of distant countries. It also meant that Muslims from these various countries traveled to Mecca, and that they found new ways to do so through exploration.